“There will be signs” | December 2 | Advent 1

Texts: Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16

1963 was the 100 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Civil Rights movement was in full swing.  That year King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  President Kennedy addressed the nation about why he sent the National Guard to help protect two black students at the University of Alabama.  There was the March on Washington with its “I have a dream speech,” the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killing four black girls.  President Kennedy was assassinated.  And, in 1963, African American writer James Baldwin wrote an essay, addressed to his 15 year old nephew, trying to explain why so many white folks were responding to all this with such fear.

To his teenage nephew, coming of age in this world, Baldwin writes this:

 “Try to imagine how you would feel, if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”  — from The Fire Next Time.

I don’t know if James Baldwin had Luke’s gospel open as he wrote, but his words echo those of Jesus.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  Luke 21:25-26

Jesus speaks these words having just been in the temple – that solid, fixed star in the life of his beloved people.  The place where the symbols of cosmic meaning were etched in stone, enacted through ritual.  Where earth touched heaven.

Luke is almost certainly writing his gospel after 70CE, the year the Romans destroyed the temple.   These words of Jesus speak into this time of disorientation and upheaval.  “Not one stone left upon another,” Jesus had said earlier.  “The powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

When what you thought was solid and fixed moves out of place, then what?  When the unshakeable is shaken, where does that leave you and your little life?

————————————

2018 is not yet over, but on the church calendar, this is day one of a new liturgical year.  Without fail, I’m always a bit taken aback that these are the words and images to begin Advent.  They are startling, especially when one is expecting tidings of comfort and joy.  I’m yet to see a Hallmark card with the greeting: “May your season be filled with fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world”…flip to the inside…”for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  If you’re still looking for a tagline for your family holiday cards, it’s not too late.

How to greet these words that beckon us into this new season?  Especially when they sound eerily close to summarizing the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Is this a meltdown?  An unravelling?

A shake up?  A shakedown?

A crash?  A market correction?

Jesus’ words are by no means a direct forecast of our present predicament, but apparently there are some common themes that connect 70CE, 1963, and 2018CE: Disorientation, loss, grief, confusion, fear.  Solid things coming undone.  Has there ever been a year free from these realities?  A month?  A day?

———————–

The turbulence gets all the press, but there’s more going on here.  Look closer, for a storyline that takes a lot more careful attention to notice.  Breathe.  Pay attention.

Luke 21:27: “Then they will see the Human One coming in a cloud with power.”

They’re the words of Jesus, but the imagery is borrowed.  Daniel had been the first to imagine this. Daniel, as in Daniel and the Lion’s den.  Daniel the interpreter of dreams.  The dreams of bewildered emperors seeking council.  Daniel who himself became a dreamer.  Who, one night, dreamed of horrible beasts destroying and conquering and taking their stand as rulers of the earth – each one corresponding to an empire that had harassed and oppressed his people.  Babylon, Persia, Greece.  Daniel who said I have a dream that one day, despite these beasts of empire, one day a Human One will come as if on the clouds, and rule humanly, such that all humanity and all creation will thrive and flourish.

Jesus evokes Daniel’s dream, and follows it up by saying, “Now when you see these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Redemption.  Healing.  Wholeness.  A proclamation of emancipation.  Making right what has gone wrong.  If that’s what’s coming upon us, it’s worth paying attention.  But where to look amidst the rubble of late capitalism and post-industrial data-driven society?  What does redemption sound like?  Taste like?  If redemption had a smell, how would it fill the air?

———————-

“There will be signs.”  That’s how Jesus introduces this whole sequence.  “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth.”

It’s a good thing he included that last bit about “on the earth.”  The sun, moon, and stars are out there, a whole other scale.  But we live on the earth.  We walk on the earth.  If there are going to be signs, we need some earth bound signs.  Signs that might show up on a daily walk around the block.  Signs that might come out in conversation with a neighbor.  Signs that might show up at home, doing the kind of work that keeps a home going.  Signs that speak our language, or at least live in the neighborhood.

And here’s a glimpse of what that might be:  The primary sign Jesus points to is “the fig tree and all the trees.”  This affirms a conclusion I too have reached in my adult years.  When in doubt, consult with a tree.  They’ll tell you what you need to know.  Even the prophet Jeremiah, when speaking of a redemption yet to come, can’t help but reference a tree: “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and it/he/she shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jer 34:15)

This is how Luke tells it: “Then Jesus told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kin-dom of God is near.’”

“These things” seems to be referring to the disorientation, loss, confusion, and fear already mentioned.  But now there’s more going on, if you’re willing to pay attention.  “These things,” these signs, also point to the message of the trees, who were here long before us, and have been faithfully providing for us ever since we dismounted from their righteous branches and started walking around this wondrous earth, seeing what we could do with flint and fire, iron and oil.

When the tree shows the slightest sprouting of green, it’s a sign.  Something is growing.  Summer is coming.  That’s a sign even children can read.  You don’t have to be able to read to notice that sign.  We’re skilled at noticing signs of things falling apart.  It takes a particular way of seeing to notice signs of summer, signs that point to the coming of the Human One.  Signs that say “Redemption is near at hand.”

———————-

Our theme this Advent is “Do you sense what I sense?”  We’ll be using all our senses to pay attention.  Since Advent moves us toward the birth of Jesus, a baby born in a small village to an insignificant couple, it’s OK to think small.  It’s OK if the taste of something delightful around the table is a small sign that there is indeed cause for delight.  Or if the smell of something in the air is the smallest sign that you share breath with all the creatures of this world.  We’re not trying to shake the heavens and move the foundations of the cosmos here.  That’s already underway.  We know all about that.  That’s what so often causes us to shut down our senses.  Hunker down.  Guard our brains against the onslaught.  And that’s OK too.  These are fearful times.  We must take care of ourselves.

And as we take care of ourselves, we will open our senses to the message of the trees.  The slightest greenery, the smallest bud, the babe in Bethlehem — a sign.  Can you see it?  Do you hear it?  If someone served it to you, would you let yourself taste and enjoy it?  Savor it on your tongue and feel it slide warm down your throat.  Know that it will find its way into your blood and stream through your body, each cell renewed for another day.

I sense fear and foreboding giving way to calm delight.  I can’t guarantee the outcome, but I can smell it brewing.  It’s a season when we must trust the senses of children whose joy is itself a sign.  Calling all nephews, nieces, grandchildren, Mary’s child amidst the animals – to point us toward redemption.

James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew suggests that what is fearful news for some – the crumbling of things that held up the universe – is liberating news for others – the shaking loose of the old order.  The possibility of something new coming into being right in front of our eyes.

So it is with the entry of Jesus into this world.

“Now when you see these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The thread | November 25

Texts: John 18:33-38a, Revelation 1:4-8

William Stafford was a pacifist and a poet.  He died August, 1993.  That month, perhaps knowing death was near, he wrote this poem, which he called, “The Way It Is.”

There is a thread you follow. It goes among
Things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. 

—William Stafford

Today is the day in the church calendar known as Christ the King Sunday.  Officially, it’s the last Sunday of the liturgical year.  Next week begins Advent, when themes of expectation and birth start the cycle all over again.  This is the church’s way of keeping time.

As William Stafford observes – over the course of life, “tragedies happen; people get hurt or die.  Nothing you do can stop times unfolding.”  This past year has been no exception.  Yet, there is a thread that goes among things that change.

One of our readings is from the book of Revelation.  Appropriately, the last book of our Bible.  The author, John, as he calls himself, has been exiled to the island of Patmos.  He writes this letter to seven churches across Asia Minor, present day Turkey.  It’s a difficult time for these churches.  Revelation is a vision, a dream, about the nonviolent Christ, the lamb as it’s envisioned, and the violence of empire, Rome, and all those it enlists to exert its power.  Wondrously, it’s the lamb who emerges victorious through the hard slog of history.  This is good news for these little churches, committed to the peaceful way of Jesus, living in the shadow of empire.

John greets the seven churches by writing: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.

And there it is, right from the beginning.  The thread.  The thread you can trace back into the past, the thread you hope remains for the future.  The thread you hold in the present.  For John, the thread is Jesus the Christ and everything he represents to humanity.  For John, this is more than just a singular life with a birthday and crucifixion date.  Christ is the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Cosmically available for all.  A force unto itself.  A thread that runs through the troubled story of humanity.

There is a thread you follow. It goes among
Things that change. But it doesn’t change.

Every Thanksgiving my family sits down for an end of the year recap.  We set aside a whole evening after the youngest generation is asleep.  We go around the circle one at a time, reflecting on the past year.  It’s the four of us siblings, our partners, and my parents.  Ten of us.

We’ve been doing this for a dozen years or so.  I’d like to say we time this annual review to coincide with the end of the liturgical calendar, but we’re not that tuned in.  It started when we all sat down for something more like a family meeting after my brother came out to us and was moving toward a covenant ceremony with his partner, back before this was legally recognized as a marriage.  It was a chance to hear from Luke and his journey, get to know Christian who would be joining our family, and provide some space for our parents to air their own uncertain thoughts as they came to terms with something they hadn’t imagined for themselves or their family.  We went around the circle and talked about our feelings.  If you’re a young person and are confused about why this might have even been a problem or something requiring a family meeting, I thank God for the new normal you’ve been raised with.

It was an important time, a sacred time.  Then we realized we didn’t need something that intense to give us an excuse to talk like that.  So we’ve established the family talk as a tradition, and Thanksgiving weekend has become the best time to do it.

Over the years we’ve processed births, moves to new cities, parenting struggles and joys, work highs and lows, miscarriages, thoughts on retirement.  A lot happens for ten people over the course of a dozen years.  For me, that time has become a thread that goes among things that change.  It’s one of my favorite events of the year.

Over the years, it has become a thread that has better enabled us to stay tuned in to the thread of one another’s lives.

The poet says:

While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. 

This thread goes by different names: Love, family, our true self, Christ, Buddha nature, home, peace, Spirit.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. 

Our Gospel reading puts into sharp focus what Revelation also reveals.  The thread of Christ, who is, and was, and is to come is not the only thread of the human story.  There are others.  There’s another power that would claim to be the line to which we must cling for security.

We see these two threads in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate, the Roman governor, in John’s Gospel.

Over the course of these verses, Pilate asks Jesus four questions. His questions are direct.  Jesus’ answers are indirect. Surprise.

Perhaps the first question was the only one Pilate was really interested in getting answered. “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus replies with a question of his own: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate is playing his part as the interrogator.  But, Jesus asks him, is this all he is doing?  Just playing out a role others have assigned him? Jesus is under arrest, but is Pilate really as free as he may think he is, asking the question on his own, or is he just one more prisoner confined to his narrow role given him by someone else?  Is Pilate just another thread in the mighty rope of empire, of whom Rome is merely the latest manifestation?

Pilate is not deterred. His next question is “What have you done?” Jesus answers this by pointing out what he has not done. What he has not done is call on his followers to fight for him, to protect him, to prevent him from being arrested. Jesus has not used violence. Even though this kingdom that he has been speaking about occupies the same time and space as the kingdom that Pilate serves, Jesus’ kingdom “is not from this world.”

Pilate skillfully jumps on the mention of a “kingdom” as a way of bringing it back to his original question, this one now his third: “So, you are a king?” The closest Jesus gets to answering whether or not he is a king is his response to this question. Jesus says, “You say that I am a king.”

One of the compelling aspects of this conversation is that we have some freedom in how we hear the questions of Pilate and the responses of Jesus. Whether they’re harsh. Whether or not Jesus is being sarcastic, ironic, speaking boldly or softly, looking Pilate in the eyes or at the ground or off in the distance, smiling, expressionless.

This flexibility of interpretation is no more present than Pilates’ fourth and final question of this exchange.  Pilate had been asking questions about power. Jesus comes out and finally says what he is all about. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

And there we have it.  Pilate, the man of imperial power, and Jesus the man of truth.  Two threads that run through history.

This prompts Pilate to ask a very different kind of question than the previous ones. “What is truth?” Which prompts us to wonder just what kind of question this might be.

Does Pilate have an admiration for the Greek philosophers and wish to hear Jesus’ take on the much-debated question? What is truth?

Has something Jesus said, or the way he said it, leapt into a deeper part of Pilate’s humanity and caused him to ask this question? – the world-weary Roman governor seeking spiritual insight from the mystical Jew? What is truth?

Or is this the cynical question of a powerful ruler who knows that the answer is plain as day? What is truth? Truth is what Pilate says it is – nothing more, nothing less.  The truth is that Jesus will soon be dead, sent by Pilate across town to be crucified, and Pilate will soon leave Jerusalem after the Passover festival, back to his base in Caesarea, one more successful episode under his belt of keeping the peace, doing his duty, fulfilling his role.

The innocent man from Nazareth dies a violent death.  And Pilate flips a sheet of paper on his desk and moves on to other business.

Regardless of how he inflects the questions, Pilates’ truth is that the puny thread of Jesus will be snapped, and the many threaded rope of Rome will endure.

Our truth is that today isn’t called “Pilate the King Sunday.”  And for all of its history, it’s not Pilate or Herod or Caesar that the church has exalted as the thread to which we hold.

There is a thread you follow. It goes among
Things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. 

Whatever you call this thread, you must give it your attention and honor it with your life.  As we stand at the end of another liturgical year, it is this thread that has brought you here.  Which is, which was, which is to come.

If you have lost the thread, can’t find it for the life of you, hold on to someone holding on to the thread.  They will likely welcome the company.  If you can’t see anyone near you, cry out, “Help, I’ve lost the thread.”  This makes it easier for the thread to find you.

May your way be blessed.  May you find and follow the thread and may it take you places you would not otherwise have imagined going.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Not far from the kin-dom of God” OR Margaret Unchained

 

Texts: Acts 12:6-11; Mark 12:28-34

If you’re like me, you didn’t grow up observing All Saints or All Souls Day, or even know it was a thing.  Either way, each of us have likely accumulated a few saints over the years.  These are the people, living and dead, who exemplify a life well lived.  We hear their stories and we want to know more.  We don’t need them to be perfect, but we need them to show us something.  Something of love, something of courage, something of God.  Knowing their stories shapes our own. We need these stories = these lives who were, in the words of Jesus, “not far from kin-dom of God.”  They help us see that the kin-dom of God can indeed be not far away.

Hebrews chapter 11 walks through a whole ensemble of characters from the Hebrew Bible – From Adam and Eve’s son Abel, to Abraham and Moses, to Rahab, to the prophets.  It follows this up by saying, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race set out for us.”

Observance of All Saints and All Souls, in our own Protestant way, reminds us of that great cloud of witnesses.  Even though the question “Who’s in your cloud?” sounds like a tagline for a tech company, it would make for an interesting exercise for each of us to do some cloud mapping and compare clouds.  “Who’s in your cloud?”

I like to focus this first Sunday in November on someone from our Anabaptist/Mennonite cloud of witnesses.  I’m guessing our Anabaptist-of-the-year this time around is an unknown.  I hadn’t heard of her until Paula Snyder Belousek, who pastors Salem Mennonite Church in Elida, Ohio, brought her up at a monthly CDC pastors meeting a little while back.  Margaret Hellwart of Beutelsbach.  Anyone ever heard of Margaret?  Paula said she often tells her story to youth considering baptism.  After today, Margaret Hellwart will be an official member of the CMC cloud of witnesses.

I want to get into her story by way of this week’s gospel lectionary, from Mark 12.  That’s where we hear that line from Jesus, “you are not far from the kin-dom of God.”  If you were a part of the congregation in 2014 you might recall this passage was one in our Twelve Scriptures Project – when together we selected the Twelve Scriptures that most inform our faith.  These twelve scriptures are still preserved in the colorful installation in the foyer over the bench.  This passage from Mark got the most votes.  So, had it been a one scripture project, this would have been it.

It’s absolutely central because it involves Jesus being asked about what he considers to be central.  A scribe, a member of the elite educated class, approaches Jesus with this question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”  When you boil it all down, Jesus, what’s it all about?

Jesus frequently responded to questions by posing a better question.  But there’s not much to improve on with this one, and Jesus has a direct answer.  He combines a passage from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus.  To paraphrase: “Love God with all your being, with all you are, your heart, soul, mind, strength,” and “Love your neighbor as if they were you and you were them.”  When you boil it all down, it’s about love of God and love of neighbor, and when you boil that down, it’s God who is the Source of all love, continually flowing to us, that enables us to love in the first place.

That’s it.  That’s what’s first of all.  That’s the center.  That’s what most matters.

In the gospels, scribes are mostly portrayed as opposed to Jesus, but this one receives Jesus’s response with gratitude, and adds his own commentary.  He agrees with Jesus’ distillation of all the teachings and all the commandments: love of God, love of neighbor.  The scribe then adds his own two cents: “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

The scribe highlights a tension that runs through all religion.  There are the ethical teachings about how we treat one another, and there are the ritual practices.  Love your neighbor – ethics, morals, the relational part of how we live, kindness, mercy, and justice and peace – and the ritual part – perform the burnt offerings, observe the annual holy days, attend church, sing the hymns, take Communion, etc.  These two don’t need to be in tension, but without a deep rootedness in the love of God, ritual easily becomes ritualism, habits of religion can easily dull rather than heighten our senses to what really matters.  To this insight, Jesus tells the scribe: “You are not far from the kin-dom of God.”

This is where Margaret Hellwart comes in.  Because Margaret first became known publicly through her conscientious objection to the ritual parts of the dominant religion of her time.  To put it in more plain language, she got in trouble because she stopped going to church.  Quite a role model for all of us.  But stick with me.

Margaret lived in the village of Beutelsbach.  This is in present day southern Germany, close to Stutthgart.  In the sixteenth century it was in the circle of influence of the Swiss Brethren movement of Anabaptism.  This is the group of Anabaptists who did the first ana-baptizing on record – re-baptizing.  Or, as they believed, their first true baptism in consciously choosing to follow Jesus.  That was January, 1525.

Their teachings on the need for an authentic inner faith appealed especially to those who had little power within the current economic and religious establishment.  There was a renewed emphasis on the teachings of scripture, and the leading of the Spirit.  They rejected the use of violence, the sword, within the church.

Many women found an opening in Anabaptism to exercise their own authority outside the rigid male dominated hierarchy of the state church.

Men and women were martyred for their deviant teachings.  Anabaptism was a far cry from feminism, but it did threaten social harmony organized around patriarchy.

Margaret Hellwart was not a martyr, so there are no images of her in the Martyr’s Mirror.  She was born in 1568, about two generations after those first re-baptisms.  We know hardly anything about her until 1608, when she was 40.  By that time the Swiss Anabaptist movement had been scattered due to persecution.  The heaviest persecution had passed, but Anabaptists were still considered suspect.  Because they believed the church should reflect the life of Jesus, the Anabaptists around Margaret would often skip Sunday worship and Communion at the local Lutheran parish, which they saw as being full of unregenerate people.  Instead, they would meet in homes and a nearby wood to teach one another the scriptures, pray, and sing.  This was actually the primary way of identifying Anabaptists.  Look at the church attendance roles and figure out who in town wasn’t showing up on Sunday.

So, in the spring of 1608, we have our first public record of Margaret.  Her name appears in a report by the Lutheran General Superintendent to the Synod.  They note she’d been warned several times before to attend church and the Lord’s Supper sacrament, but she wasn’t complying.

Margaret had come to same conclusion as the scribe who spoke with Jesus in the temple.  A life defined by love was of greater value than simply going through the rituals.

By the way, if you’re visiting today and you’re Lutheran, we love you, and we’re grateful we’ve had plenty of time over the centuries to work on our relationship.  Just be sure to sign the attendance pads when they’re passed around during the offering so we know you’re in church.

A local ordinance in Stuttgart made specific reference to a group of very energetic Anabaptist women in the area.  Interestingly, most of their husbands weren’t Anabaptists.  An initial policy was to exile these women from the region, but the families couldn’t cope without the wives/mothers present, and the public expense to help care for their families became too heavy.

So we don’t want these women getting out of line and causing things to not hold together, but we really need them…in order to hold things together.

So the authorities came up with a new plan.  They would no longer exile these women.  Instead, they would chain them to the floors of their houses.  The chains would be long enough that they could move about and do domestic type things – cook, and care for children – but they couldn’t leave the house and be in conversation with other Anabaptists.  I’m guessing the guy who suggested this in the committee meeting was given a promotion.

Margaret was the most prominent of these Anabaptist female leaders.  She had two years to avoid the fate of the chain.  She was called before the Consistory, the church court, in 1608 and 1609, each time interrogated about her faith and practice, each time ordered to attend the local parish.  Each time letting them know in no uncertain terms she had no intention of obeying the orders.

The main source I’m drawing from, called Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth Century Reforming Pioneers says this: “Margaret Hellwart appears to have been unusually gifted with self-confidence.”  One piece of evidence for this was at a later trial, after she’d been chained for six years, it was reported that Margaret had a mocking smile on her face.  Because, you know, any sign of self-confidence is surely a mockery to authority.

Perhaps a reason for Margaret’s confidence is that between the years 1610 and 1621, that’s eleven years of house arrest, records show she escaped no fewer than 21 times.  Margaret is the Great Houdini of Anabaptism.  Each time they found her, they would re-assemble the chain around her ankle, and each time she’d find a way out, visiting mostly with other women in the community, speaking to them about the faith.  In one instance, there’s an account of the church superintendent and mayor coming to her house unannounced.  After knocking on the door, Margaret didn’t answer right away.  But they could hear what sounded like her moving through the house and then putting her chains back on before she opened the door.

How many others throughout history, women and men, have had to give the impression of being chained, when they are in fact free in mind, soul, and body?

One of the scriptures Margaret would share, when she was out and about, was the passage we read from Acts chapter 12 – the story of Peter being freed by an angel from his chains in prison, and going out to the other believers to give them encouragement.

It’s unfortunate we don’t know more about Margaret Hellwart.  We have these records, and we have just a few testimonies about her from others.  This is how the Profiles book summarizes the testimony about her faith: “God has commanded that people should love one another.  Any who live as a Christian are by that fact alone a member of the church.”  A friend of Margaret’s named Katharina Koch testified that she didn’t need to attend church because Margaret Hellwart taught her all she needed to know.

These are testimonies from a time when the institutions of the day were utterly failing their people.  The structures had become so caught up in preserving their own existence, they had forgotten their initial reason for being.  Teacher, which commandment is greatest of all?

We claim Anabaptism as our lineage because Margaret and others rediscovered what is greatest of all.  The psychologist James Finley has said: “Love protects us from nothing, even as it unexplainably sustains us in all things.” James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013)

Considering Margaret’s story makes me think of today’s #MeToo movement.

It is a gift to be living in a time when Margarets are becoming unchained and telling their truth to their sisters and brothers.  Aided by angels, allies, and tremendous courage, Margaret is speaking.  The institutions that prefer her chained are scrambling to do damage control.  We are witnesses to the Spirit at work through her, and we sense that the kin-dom of God has come a bit nearer.

Margaret lived out her life in her home community.  Court records of her end when she was in her early 50’s, meaning either she died then, or the authorities gave up bringing her to trial.  Historian’s best guess is that she buried in an unmarked grave on unconsecrated ground in Beutelsbach.  We consecrate her story today by lighting a candle in her honor.

 

 

 

The Human One came to serve | October 21 

Text: Mark 10:35-45

Servant leadership – it’s an old idea.  The phrase itself was made popular in the US in the second half of the 20th century by Robert Greenleaf.  His writing became something of a movement that impacted how corporations and governments talked and thought about leadership.

Greenleaf worked for AT&T for forty years.  Over those decades he became weary of the authoritarian type power he experienced in US institutions.  So he took an early retirement in 1964 and committed himself to researching and writing about leadership ethics.  He wrote a highly influential essay that was called “Essentials in Servant Leadership.” It included these words:

“The servant-leader is servant first… Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first… The best test, and the most difficult to administer, is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”  Citation HERE.

The idea of servant leadership reaches back well before the gospels.  Five hundred years before Christ, in China, Lao Tzu wrote this in the Tao Te Ching:

“The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’”

Any of us who have had good mentors, good teachers, good managers, good parents, know the power of servant leadership to inspire and transform.  It changes lives.  It changes the mission of institutions.  Any of you who are mentors, teachers, managers, or parents, know that it’s not always easy.

It’s encouraging when a teaching so important to our Christian faith gains some traction in the wider culture.  And when we discover that other wisdom traditions in different parts of the world have also been saying this all along.  Anabaptists and Mennonites have valued servant leadership from our beginnings.  We were birthed as a response to the corruptions in the church hierarchy in 16th century Europe.  And when that hierarchy is literally trying to kill you, there’s some added incentive to promote a different leadership model.

Servant leadership is a central theme in today’s lectionary gospel reading.  Jesus says to his disciples: “You know that among the Gentiles (Ahem, the Romans) those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”  That’s a good line from Jesus, pretty straightforward, but the story overall presents a rather sobering picture of how easy it is to get turned around in how we exercise power toward one another.

When James and John step apart from the other disciples and approach Jesus with their request for him to do for them whatever they ask, it is toward the end of a long journey.  The disciples had given up so much to follow this teacher from Nazareth.  The brothers James and John had left their fishing nets – their source of livelihood and income.  It was probably the only life they’d ever known.  They had left their father Zebedee in the boat, now just him and the hired hands, the family business interrupted.  Left their fishing nets and their social safety net; left it all because of an enticing and somewhat mysterious invitation from a Galilean preacher who had approached them one day by the lake and said: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  They had followed him.  The other disciples had given up just as much.

As the Gospels tell it, Jesus had numerous faithful followers.  At one point he chooses 70 of them and gives them the assignment to go ahead of him in pairs to all the towns on his travel itinerary.  They are to carry no travel bag, and no money.  They weren’t even supposed to wear sandals.  They were to be completely and utterly dependent on the hospitality of the people they would meet, and if they found a home where they were welcomed, they were to give them a blessing of peace and tell them that the kingdom of God, the beloved community, had come near.  I’m also wondering if they were collecting phone numbers and emails to sign people up for the movement that they had just become pre-qualified to join by opening their home to strangers.

There were men and women loyal to Jesus.

There were many followers, but the gospels emphasize that there was an inner circle of twelve.  They had listened to Jesus’ teachings, been present when he had healed the sick, the blind, and the dying.  They had gone on private retreats with him away in isolated hills and wilderness area.  They had witnessed crowds of thousands flocking to him as his reputation grew throughout the region.  The crowds had come and gone, but the twelve had been by his side the whole time.

And within the twelve, there was an even tighter circle of three – Peter, James, and John, who would sometimes be the only ones Jesus would have accompany him.  Into the home of the synagogue leader, whose daughter had been deathly sick and who was feared dead.  They saw Jesus go up close to the child, take her by the hand, and say to her: “Little girl, get up.”  And she got up.  And they were the only ones Jesus took with him up the high mountain when Jesus was transfigured, engulfed in light, and had a counseling session with the spirits of Moses and Elijah.  They had witnessed things they wouldn’t have imagined during the daily grind of throwing their nets in the Sea of Galilee and hoping for fish.

Now they are, as Mark tells us, on the road, to Jerusalem.  It’s clear they have this destination in front of them.  It’s not clear to the disciples why they are headed there and what exactly will happen once they get there.  The end of a long journey.  The climax of weeks, months, and years of walking the countryside, being astounded, bewildered, exasperated, and wondering what exactly it was they were doing, and why.  To what end?  There was also a sense of impending confrontation that many of them must have been sensing.  They were headed to Jerusalem, and Jesus now tells them for the third time that when they get there he’s expecting not to be so well received – he will be handed over to the religious and political leaders, put on trial, condemned, mocked, and killed, rising on the third day.  Jesus says: “The Human One will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death.”

This is where today’s passage picks up.  As much as we want to pull for the disciples, cheer them on as heroes, Mark is intent on letting us know that they, much like us, can’t see the road ahead.  This training curriculum ministry apprenticeship program, has not done the trick.    The path of discipleship they have been on is apparently not so much a matter of learning, adding one thing to another to produce something greater; but a matter of unlearning old habits, perspectives, and aspirations – subtracting things they thought for sure they knew.  We thought we knew.

James and John are taking all this in, interpreting it in the only way that made any sense to them.  They know Jesus is a powerful person, and have difficulty imagining any other kind of power other than the kind they’ve seen most of their lives.  And, when Jesus gains the kind of control they have in mind, they’d like to have the top two cabinet seats in the new administration.  “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  “What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus replies, with one eyebrow lifted.  “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left, in your glory.”  Jesus replies, “You do not know what you are asking.”  If you flip ahead a few chapters to the crucifixion, you notice that there are a couple unfortunate guys who end up on the right hand and the left hand of Jesus.  They’re not exactly the most desirable seats in the house.  “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus tells his beloved companions.  The whole order of things is about to get stood on its head, upside down.  Or better yet, what was backwards and upside down will be turned right side up.  The dominating powers get exposed for the real harm that they cause.  They’re a killer.  And a new way opens up right in the middle of the old.  A new possibility for humanity.  The only way for us and this world to flourish.

Jesus doesn’t rebuke the disciples when they make their request, he redirects their desires and ambitions.  It’s not that they’re asking for too much, it’s that they’re asking for too little.  There’s a much more constructive, adventurous, mysterious path that Jesus has in mind for them.  He highlights, one more time, the path of the Human One, the one who teaches us how to be authentic, healthy, human beings.  “The Son of Man, Human One, came not to be served, but to serve.”

The aspiration to love the world by serving it is an impulse that lies at the very creative heart of the universe.  In Christian language, we say that it is the Spirit of God, the living Christ, alive within us, seeking to become incarnated in the world through our hands and feet.  Whether it is happening in the world of business or politics or nonprofit or church life, it is the same Spirit at work.

With Abbie out of the country for 10 days I’m reminded in an intensified way how much parenthood is a round the clock training ground for those of us still trying to unlearn our self-serving tendencies.  It’s not always pretty, but it’s there every day.  For all of us – to attempt to pass along the best of ourselves to the next generation, who we pray will discover their own unique gifts and aspirations for loving the world by serving it.  Incidentally, one of the consequences of having three children is that you officially run out of sides when they want to sit one at your right and one at your left.  Under the best conditions, the lap seems to be a good third option.

Part of the good news is that there are so many ways to lead by serving.  If you have doubts, just wait until our Opportunities to Serve form comes out in a few months.  So many ways…  Our congregation is a vital place because of those of you who teach Sunday school, provide meals for those recovering from a surgery – or a birth, lead worship, or read scripture, mentor a youth, or be with the children in the nursery.  Serve a meal at the YWCA Family Center.  These are acts of service that help us be a community in the image of Jesus.

The Gospels claim there’s a really big idea behind all this.  One of the central icons seared into our consciousness, is this suffering human, Jesus the Christ, betrayed, mocked, and crucified.  It haunts us, as it should.  Humanity couldn’t put up with the Human One.  It’s a sobering symbol of the power of domination, which is still with us.  And so we can’t help but pay attention to those places where we still witness crucifixion happening.  Where there is suffering and violence and fear and where creation is being stifled.  James and John, on the other side of Easter, have this image in the front of them.  They come to believe that wherever there is crucifixion, there is also resurrection.  And wherever the call of service takes us, it takes us to places where there is some suffering, and it asks us to be signs of resurrection, simply by loving, and serving.

Take this yoke | October 7    

Text: Matthew 11:25-30

There’s something freeing about admitting you don’t have a clue.

Two of the most significant epiphanies in my life have been not flashes of profound insight but rather flashes of profound ignorance.  The first one happened after my two years at Hesston College.  I was taking a year off school with four friends.  We were living in Atlanta for a year to see how the “real world,” really worked.  My goal for the year was to learn about what I had identified as the four C’s of independent, adult male living, about which I knew next to nothing.  Construction, Cars, Computers, and Cooking.  I got a job at a construction site of town houses.  One day I was taking a lunch break, eating by myself in a house that had been framed, but had not been drywalled.  So all the electrical and plumbing in the walls was visible.  I specifically remember that moment of looking up at this complex network of wood, wire, copper, and plastic, and realizing I didn’t understand anything.

This flash of profound ignorance encompassed not just home construction, but also the entire human constructed environment I was in.  Construction, Cars, Computers, Cooking, and pretty much everything else.  That’s what I get for being a Sociology and Bible major in college.  But in that moment, I finally got it.  I got that I didn’t get it.  I was an alien to my environment, and my environment was alien to me.  That year I took some strides in becoming more familiar with the world we have made for ourselves, although I have to say that among the four C’s Cooking came in last place and hasn’t fared much better since.

That was 1998, and I was 20, half a lifetime ago.

My second flash of ignorance happened ten years later, in 2008, and I only know that for sure because I went back and checked my journals.  I was 30, I was back visiting Mom and Dad, walking down the lane, looking over at Mom’s big garden.  This is what I wrote in my journal: “I had the sudden realization that I don’t know anything.  At least anything important.  I don’t know how the most basic things of life work – how my body works, how to grow plants, how soil relates with sun and seed and water.  I had the feeling that I wasn’t sure I knew anything that really mattered.  This is both a revelation, and slightly discouraging.”

The Atlanta revelation: profound ignorance of the human constructed world.

The Bellefontaine farm and garden revelation: profound ignorance of the natural world.

That pretty much covers it.

I didn’t immediately make the connection between these two experiences, but when I did it felt like rather than just more information, I needed a whole different orientation toward life.

Toward the middle of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has something to say about ignorance and orientation toward life.  Matthew 11:25-26:

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you Abba, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to little children; yes, Abba, for such was your gracious will.

These are unexpected words, especially from the mouth of a teacher like Jesus.  Praising God that those who are supposedly wise and educated aren’t getting his message at all.  We have plenty of educators in our congregation.  Let’s say you pause in the middle of a class and ask for a show of hands for how many students are understanding what you’re talking about.  Seeing none, you blurt out a joyous hallelujah.

To be fair to Jesus, he’s perhaps not so much celebrating that the supposed wise and educated ones, those will degrees in Bible and so on, aren’t getting it, as he is celebrating who does get it: the children and child-like.  Babies.  Those who have nothing to unlearn.  Those wide open to the mysteries and beauty of this world.  Those not locked into particular camps of thought.  Those whose hearts are soft and flexible and know only the language of love.

Not that I would trust my car to a four year old mechanic.  But I’m more than willing to trust their insights and questions into what’s really going on in this world.  About what really matters.

As the years pass we take on certain perspectives, we bind ourselves to certainties that end up hiding more than they reveal.  Or we just get loaded down, burdened by the responsibilities of being responsible adults, charged with holding it all together.  Like the ox with the yoke, dutifully plowing straight ahead on the only path we can see, to do our necessary work.

Which is likely why Jesus follows up with these words:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

These are not words of judgment, but words of invitation.

“Come to me, and I will give you rest.”

Had those first listeners been paying attention in synagogue from week to week, Jesus’ words would have sounded familiar.  They are the words of Wisdom.

That’s Wisdom with a capital W.

Wisdom traditions existed throughout the Ancient Near East.  Jewish teachers added their own insights and wove them into their own tradition.  Wisdom was often personified as a Woman, who worked right alongside God in the creation and re-creation of the world.

In the book of Sirach, Wisdom says, “Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits.  For the memory of me is sweeter than honey, and the possession of me sweeter than honeycomb.”

Jesus samples these words from Wisdom, adding his own theme.  He doesn’t seem all that interested in information, which is quite different than Wisdom.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  This is where Wisdom is found.

It’s like one of those invitations to a party that says the only thing you need to bring is yourself.

You bring yourself, and all your heavy burdens.  All you thought you knew.  You walk towards Wisdom, toward the Christ.  You give these burdens, like an offering, the only gift you have to give.  You unstrap whatever heavy yoke has been around your neck.  They and you are accepted without condition.  You unlearn.  There is no interrogation, no judgment.

You find sweet, necessary, soul-restoring rest.  The Christ claims you. Mother Wisdom holds you near, like a child.

But this does come with a catch, if you want to call it that.

Jesus praises child-like openness to wisdom, then gives the invitation to rest, and then a another invitation.  “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for my yoke is good, and my burden is light.”

The Rabbis spoke often of the yoke of Torah.  Those joyful obligations that one takes upon oneself.   Another frequently referenced yoke was the yoke of foreign oppressors, like the Egyptians and Babylonians, and the Romans, who placed their own demands on the backs of the people.

The catch is that there is no yoke-free way to live.  As we come of age and leave childhood, some of these burdens are forced onto us, not of our own choosing, and some we take up on our own.

The question is what kind of yoke will we bear?  What yokes are we to throw off, and what yokes are we to accept as gifts, as invitations into necessary work?

Or, since even I who grew up on a farm with livestock have no memory of ever having used an actual yoke with cattle, to update the language a bit: To what are we attached?  To what are we bound?  Once we have unloaded our false sense of self, What is it we must carry through this world?

Now it’s 2018, and I’m 40.  I guess I’m due for another epiphany of ignorance.  It makes me wonder how each of us would answer this question at different points in life.  What do you know at 50 that you didn’t know at 40?  What do you unlearn at 70 that you thought you knew at 60?  What yoke are given at 80 that you know you must carry the rest of the way?

It’s World Communion Sunday, so our scope is broad today.  We remember that our lives are bound together with sisters and brothers around the world who also gather around the table of bread and cup.

Take my yoke upon you, says Jesus.

Take this yoke, this joyful burden.

Today here is one yoke it seems we are asked to carry.  And this is it:

We must love this world.  We must love this world – let this be our yoke.  This world of construction, cars, computers, and cooking, this world of bacteria and seeds and gardens.  Even if you’re trying to become as unattached as possible from the need for a car, and even though some of the bacteria can kill you, you must love this world.

You don’t have to intellectually understand it all, but you must love this world.

You don’t have to slip the entirety of this world over your shoulders and carry it as if you were a beast of burden.  You are not a beast of burden.  You are, what shall we say?  A creature of calling.  And so you must take this yoke.  You must love this world.

You must love this world like the young Francis of Assisi, son of a wealthy cloth maker, who slipped out of his family inheritance, exchanging those robes for a life of wandering village to village, tree to tree.  Who came to love the world and all its creatures precisely because he had unburdened himself from “the world” to which he did not conform.

You must love this world so much that you’re able to wear the nice clothes, to live the settled life, to spend much of your days in an office or in your home or at your computer, without becoming attached to any of it, in order to do the work that you must do, for a season, until it’s time to lay down that yoke and accept another.

You must love this world that we are polluting.  You must mourn the death of species and celebrate the discovery of our limitations.

You must love this world enough to rest, to Sabbath, to remember that it keeps spinning without your labor.

You must love this Communion of Christ and Wisdom and World and you and your enemy.

What is the burden you must now lay down and let rest?  What is the yoke you must now carry a little further down the road?

 

Self: A widening circle | September 30

Texts: Leviticus 19:18,34; March 8:34-37; Galatians 2:19-20

After four months, we’re at the end of this theme.  That’s a long theme.  We’ve been listening for how we’re Called In to different parts of life.  Called in to the World.  To our City.  How we’re called in to this Congregation and how this congregation calls us in.

And, Self.  Called to be our deepest, truest selves.  Which is another way of talking about how the Spirit wakens us to our participation in the life of God.  Which is love.  Which is life leading to more life.  We’ve got these spheres, these widening circles, where self is both the smallest one, and the one that can transcend all the others.

Thomas Merton calls this “the most important of all voyages.”

This is what he wrote:

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous. ( “The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century”, p.11.)

Thomas Merton talks about the abyss that separates us from ourselves, but, paradoxically, one of the things about our Selves, is that it’s the one thing we can’t escape.  You can take a break from a congregation, switch to another, or quit church altogether.  You can move out of the city.  You can go on a retreat from the World, at least temporarily withdraw from the systems that order one’s days.

But wherever we go, we still have to live with our selves.  We can’t just change addresses and leave behind our thoughts, our experiences, our wounds, our addictions, our radiance, the stories others have told us about who we are, the stories we tell ourselves.

These are all the pieces floating around in our heads, coded in our relationships, that we experience as our self.  It’s quite a stew.

So here we all are, sitting here with our selves.

Now, as everyone knows, whenever one needs a definitive word on something, one goes to the biblical book of Leviticus.

Leviticus chapter 19 contains a rather generous view of the self.  Verse 18 was made all the more prominent when Jesus highlighted it as part of the Greatest Commandment.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  A little later in the same chapter is a less familiar saying that takes this even further.  It follows that same pattern.

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

These passages carry a certain assumption about the self – and I would call it a generous assumption.  In the ancient world “love” is used just as much as a statement of loyalty as it is a statement of affection.  To love your king or your master was to be loyal to them, to follow through on one’s obligations toward them, to defend their honor.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  “You shall love the stranger as yourself.”  These statements in Leviticus take for granted the loyalty and commitment one has toward oneself, and then use that as a reference point for how one ought to treat not just the neighbor, but the stranger, the outsider.

And the self is not just some independent isolated figure, but a self-in-community, formed by a particular way of remembering.  Over and over the ancient Israelites are instructed to remember that they were once strangers and foreigners and slaves in the land of Egypt.  This is not just a past experience, but a present part of one’s being.  Part of one’s story, one’s self.  The Holy One liberated them, and they now are to work for the liberation of all people because they know in their very being what it’s like to be a stranger.

This is the beautiful possibility of self about which Leviticus speaks.  Without this sturdy sense of self, the commandments begin to falter.

So…It’s a good thing we always have this sturdy, God-infused sense of self, Right?  We know how to be loyal, and true, and loving toward ourselves, Right?  How wonderful that we are absolutely at peace with ourselves as beloved children of God.  And so it naturally follows that our selves are overflowing with generosity and loving-kindness toward neighbors and those different than us.

….Well…

From his Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, in the middle of the 20th century, in the heat of Cold War madness, with the world on the brink of nuclear suicide, Thomas Merton writes:

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.

It’s a phrase with echoes of Jesus’ words to the crowds following him: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  That word for life is psuche and can also mean soul, or self.  It’s where we get our word psyche and psychology.

What good is it to gain the whole world, but lose your psyche, your self, in the process?

One of the most intriguing notions of Self I’ve come across recently comes out of a branch of psychology called Internal Family Systems.  This approach sees each person as made up of many different parts, like a family.  Each part has a story, even a personality.  Parts express themselves in relationship to the other parts.  The work of internal family systems includes starting to see and name those parts, those internal family members, be in conversation with them, and help them be flexible and gracious toward each other rather than rigid and domineering.

So, for example, one might discover that one has an anxious child in there, nervous about being accepted in the world.  But this child may not ever be allowed to grow up because of the goal driven Achiever who strives for success at all costs.  The Achiever may be in conflict with the gentle grandmother in there who feels she must always put other people’s needs before hers.  And she might be resentful of the Free-Spirited young adult in there who wants nothing more than to drink in all the beauty of the world.  These, and many more, all in one person.

As therapists were encouraging people to describe their internal family, they began to wonder who was the voice of the client that was able to so accurately and even compassionately name and describe these parts.  They came to call this voice the Self.  And after listening to many, many clients, a clear and consistent picture of the Self emerged.

The Self is the observer of the family, and has the ability to be the leader.  It has inherent wisdom.  It is born whole and doesn’t need to go through stages of development.  It’s so vitally important that when the parts feel that the Self is being threatened, they try to protect it, hide it away and take charge.  But this never works.  The parts think they’re helping, but they’re throwing the whole family out of balance, sending some into exile, losing touch with the Self’s ability to lead and harmonize the parts.  It’s easy for the person to begin believing that they are the anxious child, or the win- at- all- costs achiever.

And so the work becomes enabling these anxious parts to again trust the Self.  To find a way to give voice, for example, to the young adult-ish free spirited one inside, and when the individual begins to feel resentful or anxious about their voice, to have the Self realize which part is feeling this, and give them room to share their bit.

The more each part is listened to with a genuine curiosity, which is exactly what the Self naturally does, the more they relax into a harmonized and even playful relationship with the other parts.

It’s not just that simple, but that’s the basic gist of how Internal Family Systems approaches the inner life, and how it views the Self.

To make the leap back into traditional Christian language, this way of viewing the Self has parallels with the Apostle Paul’s teachings of Christ in us.  One place this shows up is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  He writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”  So who is the I who is able to talk about this other I who has undergone this death and resurrection?  Paul hasn’t died physically, but he has undergone a kind of death in which a new self has been raised up.  Or a Self that was there all along.  What we might call his true self.  His deepest self.  Or just, his Self.  His self which is now able to see his life and others with compassion and grace.  A self he joyfully identifies as “Christ who lives in me.”

This Self, this Christ in me, is still the same person.  It still has all the quirky and odd things that makes one who one is.  One is still fully in one’s body, one’s family, internal and external.  But one begins to see that who one is is a member of the Christ, a participant in the Divine life.  A small, mortal human and a Self that encompasses all the other widening circles.  This Christ who lives in me, this not I, but Christ, who is my true I, is what allows all of those parts of us to relax and begin to learn a way of living together in peace.  Peace with each other, and peace with other others.  This is our baptismal identity, a gift from God.

Then, the commandments start to fulfill themselves.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  You shall love the stranger as yourself.”  The Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you.

This is the most difficult of all journeys, but, if we are to take Thomas Merton at his word, it is the most important.  It is ultimately not just our journey, but the journey Christ makes with us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

City/Garden | September 16

Texts: Jeremiah 29:1-7; Revelation 21: 9-14, 22-25

It’s been observed that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.

If you want to get a little more technical, the Bible begins in the formless and void, and ends with a warning that if anyone changes any of the words in the book of Revelation that God will bring on them the plagues so vividly described within.

But if we’re willing to treat the first chapter of Genesis as something of an introduction, and if we’re willing to bracket the very end of Revelation as a bit of first century copyright language, theologically aggressive as it may be…and if we set aside that rather than being like a single book, the Bible is more like a library of books, representing a tradition that evolves over a period of several thousand years, now bound together under one cover that we might consider how we carry forward this evolving tradition in our time…If we can go with those parameters, then the Bible does indeed begin in a garden, and end in a city.

From garden to city does make for an intriguing narrative arc.

The garden, of course, is the Garden of Eden, which shows up in Genesis chapter two.  Scholars have identified this as a second, and likely more ancient, creation story, told after the quite different seven day creation story that begins with the earth being formless and void.  Genesis 1 is more cosmic in scale, with humanity not showing up until day six when they are created in the image of God. Genesis 2 focuses on the human being, formed from the dust of the ground, taking their place in a garden. The Garden of Eden.  The human’s role is to till and to keep the garden.  The first job description for the human endeavor is that of gardener.  As a labor saving device, the Creator Yahweh Elohim, has included lots of perennials in this garden, fruit bearing trees, from which humanity may eat, including the Tree of Life.

There is one off limits, and of course the curious humans eventually have to have a taste of it.  The tree of knowledge.  And once you know, you can’t unknow what you know.  There’s no going back.  As the story goes, this leads to exile from the garden.  Humanity will be fruitful and multiply as originally commanded, they will continue to till the ground, but it will take place outside this original gifted garden.  Angelic guardians with flashing swords are placed at the entrance of the Garden of Eden, protecting the way to the Tree of Life.  This dust creature called “human,” this god-image bearer, this knowledge laden creature, will need to find its way in this world beyond Eden.

So the biblical narrative begins.

And where it ends, in that final and fantastical book of the biblical library, Revelation – John’s vision, nightmare, heavenly dream, on the island of Patmos.  Where it ends, is a city.  As this vision draws to its climactic conclusion this is what John says:

“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev 21:2)  The worn out earth is renewed, not as a pristine garden, but as a city.

John goes into great detail, even about the dimensions of the city, as if he’s reading the city planning guidelines.  The walls, the gates, the construction materials consisting of various rare and precious stones.

The city takes on a cosmopolitan flare when John says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.”

The city becomes the place where the Divine and the human finally live together in harmony.

Also in the city is the long lost tree of life, those angelic guards finally relieved of their duties.  The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

John envisions where the linear time of history flows into the ocean of eternity, where the heavens and the earth are renewed.  And it looks like a city, gates wide open, all peoples and cultures welcome, with a tree offering itself as a primary care physician, a healer.

In the biblical imagination, we live in between Eden and the New Jerusalem.  The garden the city.

This summer was actually the second Sabbatical I’ve had as a pastor.  The first was while we were with the Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  Much of that Sabbatical was spent back on the farm where I grew up, where my parents still live, an hour northwest of here in Bellefontaine.  The plan was pretty simple.  Have some unhurried time outside of the city, back to the farm, back to nature.  I would help with gardening and farm related work in the morning, and in the afternoon I’d go to a coffee shop and read lots of Wendell Berry, and other such writers.  Having free lodging was a strategic perk, paid in kind through free labor.

For a little over a month, this is what we did.  It was like the Bible in reverse.  A self-exile from the city, into the garden prepared for us by my earthly parents.

Not far into this time, it became apparent that the previous split, at least in my mind, between garden and city was a false one.

A garden, rather than a pure manifestation of nature, is a highly managed environment.  To till and keep a garden is to excerpt consciousness alongside the mysterious power of life.  To choose what grows and what gets pulled up.  To select the best of what has grown and plant its seeds for the coming year.  By careful and wise tilling and keeping, the gardener has the capacity to not only maintain a landscape, but to improve it, at least in our way of defining improvement – to increase diversity, and expand what is helpful, to hold back what is harmful.  To offer something even more abundant to the next generation, fully aware that what we now have to tend is an inheritance from previous generations.

To garden is to partner with the wonder and miracle of life and be so bold as to choose what grows and what doesn’t.  And sometimes, of course, despite best efforts, it just won’t grow.

A city is a highly managed environment.  Every part of it an eclectic mixture of human forethought and unintended consequences; cooperative design and individual will; environmental opportunities and limitations; necessity and excess; a constant interplay between human consciousness and other forces.  One generation’s creative impulse inherited by future generations to revise, remodel…or get trapped in cycles and structures as powerful and potentially destructive as a plague of locusts.

Perhaps the journey from garden to city is not such a long journey after all.  There is a powerful human element in both, a burden, or gift of responsibility.

On this Sabbatical Abbie and I spent a week in California, half of it at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  We saw the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman.  We stayed in John Muir Lodge.

As we soon learned, John Muir is the patron saint of these parks.  He’s the Scottish immigrant to the US who explored and wrote eloquently about the natural beauty of the American West.  He founded the Sierra Club and strongly advocated for the creation of National Parks.

In hallways of the lodge there were color enhanced photos of the California Sierra landscape.  They looked like the kind of pictures that, in another setting, would have Bible verses under them.  A sunset over a mountain range: “And God saw that it was good.”  Towering sequoia trees: “For God so loved the world….” Or something like that.  You know what I’m talking about.  But instead of Bible verses, there were quotes from John Muir: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”  “Between every two pines is a doorway into a new world.”  I have to say in this case I preferred the John Muir quotes.

But John Muir had a blind spot.  This I discovered after some further reading about him and the California Sierras.  When he saw the Sequoias and the great Yosemite Valley, he believed it to be nature in its pure form.  A wilderness planted only by the hand of God.  Like Eden before the humans got a hold of it.  He advocated that it be protected from human encroachment, which was becoming a major problem as settlers poured in from the east.  Thus the national parks.

What he failed to see was that this land was not untouched wilderness.  It was more of a garden, even a city of some kind.  Like other parts of the US, Native Americans had been managing these lands for millennia, especially through the strategic use of fire.  Over the generations it had become a park/garden/village for people who had partnered with life and God.

But rather than bearing the names of these people who had created a civilization among the trees, the largest tree in the world is now named after a US General who fought along the Western Frontier for the extermination of these Indians, thus protecting and conserving the wilderness lands.  I wish they had read Revelation which says the tree of life is for the healing of the nations.

Decades after the Indians were gone, the conservationists began complaining about the brush and wild growth overtaking their pristine parks.  Only recently are we coming to understand the importance of careful human partnership with the wildlife and plant life to maintain an environment in which all can thrive.

Ever since eating from the proverbial tree of knowledge we as a species have been applying our vast and often short sited knowledge to shape the world around us.  What gets to grow, what gets rooted out?  Who gets rooted out?  What do we build? What do we destroy?  It’s a rather terrifying and remarkable responsibility.  It’s the same kind of work we do every day on the soul level.  What gets to grow, what gets rooted out?  What do we build? What do we destroy?  What gets our attention?  Where do we direct our energy?  How might we partner with life and God to tend the miracle of our lives?

In Jeremiah 29, the prophet writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon.  They had been uprooted from Jerusalem, and were now in a foreign land, a great city.  His wise counsel points them toward a new life in the city/garden in which they find themselves.  They are to settle in.  To send down roots.  To plant urban gardens and tend them.  To have children, and grandchildren.  To seek the shalom, the welfare, the peace of the city.  Because their wellbeing was now tied up to the wellbeing of that city.  As they tend their lives, as they live as a community, they will partner with God and life in shaping something beautiful and sustaining for themselves and future generations.

Whether Columbus is your Babylon of exile or your familiar and beloved Jerusalem, it is the city/garden in which we now live.  In which the Creator seeks to create with you a community of shalom.  May we tend our lives well, so that we can tend to this place, these neighborhoods, our neighbors, these animals and trees around us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Sabbatical…from city to country. Same thing